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Tampa Bay residents rally at Capitol ahead of immigration bill debate

A swarm of protestors bused in Monday from Tampa Bay called on God to prevent lawmakers from rolling ahead with their statewide immigration crackdown, warning it will divide their families.

Hundreds of children, their families and religious leaders chanted "We are Florida" as they snaked across the Capitol courtyard and waved signs targeting bills SB 2040 and HB 7089. Eventually they crowded on the steps of the Old Capitol, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, emphasizing the closing lines of "justice for all," and singing the "Star-Spangled Banner" without music. Someone led a prayer in Spanish.

"How many of you have faith in God that this law will not pass?" asked Cecilia Perez, a 16-year-old Largo High School sophomore, to an eruption of cheers.

"I'm here to represent millions of children that do no want this law to pass," Perez said. "Why? Well, we do not want our families to be separated, and also we do not want to have racial profiling around the state of Florida."

The protests, organized by the Florida Immigrant Coalition, will last throughout the week. Protestors from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Orange and Indian River counties, among other areas, planned to meet with their local delegations and urge against Arizona style reforms.

SB 2040, sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, is billed by Senate supporters as a lighter approach to immigration reform than the House's attempt, which makes being undocumented a state crime. It is already a federal offense.

The differences didn't really matter to the protestors. They don't want Florida lawmakers to attempt reform.

"We don't want to see families split up," said Rev. Nancy Mayeux of Union Street United Methodist Church and Hispanic mission in Clearwater. "We feel as if the system is broken on a federal basis and the state is trying to fix it on the backs of these families."

Mayeux said her Hispanic congregation is comprised of about 30 families. Already she gets calls from Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers who, she said, want to know what to do with the children of deported men and women. They either enter foster care or are placed with other family members, she said. If SB 2040 passes, she fears this will happen on an accelerated basis.

"The Bible tells us that the stranger is supposed to be welcomed," she said. "And we're not finding that here."

Aside from making Florida a hostile environment for immigrants, the bills effectively turn police officers into federal immigration officials, said Sarasota Mayor Kelly Kirschner. Extra immigration enforcement duties will strain already depleted city resources, he said.

"We really have enough challenges on our plate than to deal with yet another unfunded mandate," Kirschner said.

The issue is better left to federal authorities, he said. Further, messages to the feds should not come in the form of legislation.

"It's not the purview of 50 separate states to do an ad hoc policy in each state," he said. "And we also know that we're not going to deport our way out of the recession in the state of Florida."